When I opened my grandmother-in-law’s stash of threads, I was amazed. Colors and types of vintage embroidery threads spilled out of the bags and boxes, left over from seventy years of embroidery. The vintage workbasket held more possibilities than you find in today’s 400 skeins of DMC floss, and Grandmother’s was no exception. In the early to mid twentieth century, needleworker had several companies from which to choose. Need six-strand embroidery floss? You could use DMC, or Bucilla, or Royal Society. What if you didn’t want to use six strand cotton embroidery floss? What then?
Then you chose from many different thread types and a host of manufacturers. Silk embroidery floss. Imitation art silk floss, made from rayon. Pearl (perl) cotton. Wool three-strand embroidery yarns. Coton a broder, also known as broder cotton. This was a single strand of thread, available in several sizes and many colors up to about 2010. Size 16 was equivalent to two strands of embroidery floss.
Embroidery used to be called Art Needlework when it was created for beauty’s sake. The person who made the family clothing always used a sewing needle. But when that needle worker used colored silks or cottons, and used the needle like a paintbrush, the work turned into art. Bluebirds sailed across household linens. Pine trees stood lonely and alone on hillsides. Flowers bloomed on everything from under linens to table runners. The vintage embroidery threads brought them to life.
Once needleworkers began to work with colors in embroidery they seldom looked back. You can see that by the current selection of modern cross stitch patterns.
The companies that released the threads also created patterns to work with them. After all, what good is a brilliant blue thread if you have nothing do use it for? Readers purchased patterns through the newspaper and monthly housekeeping or needlework magazines. They also found projects and threads from their friendly Frederick Herrschner mail order catalog, or through a flyer from their local dime store. By the 1930s it seemed that everyone was into the pattern or project by mail scheme, and needleworkers bought kits and supplies in droves.
Getting ready to begin
If the design didn’t come already stamped on fabric, the worker needed to transfer it. Then came thread selection time. Unless you planned to reproduce a lifelike flower in embroidery silks, or you worked from a prepackaged kit, colors remained up to the worker. Usually a pattern offered suggestions like brown, light blue, or dark pink. Which shades you pulled and how you incorporated the colors together was your choice. Between four or five cotton embroidery thread companies you might have ten or more shades of dark pink. This gave the worker a lot of leeway in color choice.
Often the project featured whatever threads I have on hand. An avid needleworker might have a small box of silk threads, a larger bag of cottons (or several bags of cottons), and some pearl cotton. These could be mixed into a work to create contrast, texture, and shine.
Bye bye threads
Most of these vintage embroidery threads exist no longer. Some, like Corticelli and Richardson silks, are simply gone. Corticelli silks and Richardson silk mills both ceased operation in 1932. By this time companies like Bucilla introduced their synthetic art silk, often made from rayon. These threads didn’t really feel like silk, but they were shiny and inexpensive for embroidering. They too are gone, although Bucilla remains as a subsidiary of Plaid Enterprises, and embroidery kits continue to appear under the Bucilla name.
As I mentioned before, most of the coton a broder threads were discontinued in the 2010’s, at least in the U.S. It looks like this thread (also called broder special or brilliant cutwork and embroidery thread) is still being produced in limited colors by both DMC and Anchor. However, getting any of this to the U.S. can be a difficult matter. You may have to special order it from Europe if you want some. This is NOT the same as the thread called Floche. Floche is far more expensive and not as sturdy.
All is not dreary news, however. Some threads, like cotton embroidery floss and pearl cotton, still exist. You can find substitutes for many others, even though you may not find them at your local craft store. You might need to poke around a bit on the Internet to find them.
Here are some options:
- Six strand embroidery floss: DMC, Anchor, Sullivan’s, Madeira.
- Coton a broder/ broder special: You may be able to locate white, ecru, black in the U.S. As a substitute look at Sulky Petites, size 12. It’s thinner than the size 16 coton a broder, but it will give you the same experience of one strand that equals two strands of embroidery floss.
- Pearl cotton: still exists. Look for DMC. Some chains have house brands in limited colors.
- Silks: Shiny silks in the U.S. have largely been replaced by threads like DMC’s shiny satin, which is 100% rayon. For a traditional embroidery silk from France, look for Au Ver a Soie’s Alger thread.
- Silks: Although they are not all shiny, companies have produced 100% silk embroidery threads within the past 20 years or so. Some options: Treenway Silks, Caron Waterlilies (silk variegated), Kreinik Silk Mori, Rainbow Gallery’s Splendor.
- Stranded wools: Appleton wools have existed since 1835 in the UK and they still provide wool yarns to the needlepoint market. These work wonderfully for embroidery. Once I came across some instructions from the 1850s calling for “5 shades of apple green wool.” Who makes five shades of apple green? Appleton wools does. Their leaf green selections fit my project perfectly.
Be creative… have fun!
Regardless what threads you use, I hope you enjoy the process. Picking out various threads, choosing or drawing a pattern, beginning a project… these are exciting times. Incorporate one or two of these old-time threads into your next project, and see how you like it. You never know. You may be hooked.